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Ahead of Immigration Ruling and Election, Citizenship Finds Increased Importance

Rebeck and Grace Sadangsal were undocumented immigrants with three American children when a judge granted them lawful status in 2007.

The day before her court appearance in 2003, Carlin Sadangsal went to the mall to find something nice to wear.

Her parents, Rebeck and Grace, had been granted a hearing to change their immigration status, and Carlin Sadangsal, a junior high school student at the time, was preparing herself to be called to answer questions about her family.

“I said, ‘Oh man, this is pretty serious,” Sadangsal told NBC News. “This is not something that you should just forget about. This is something very life-changing.”

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Rebeck and Grace Sadangsal were both undocumented immigrants, arriving in Los Angeles in 1992 after leaving the Philippines in search of better opportunities. But without any papers, the ever-present fear of deportation loomed large — a fear sharpened by the possibility that their then three-year-old son’s epilepsy might become worse if forced to return to the tropical climate of the Philippines, a fear of how their three kids, all born on U.S. soil, would survive in a country to which they traced their heritage but one where they never lived.

“After going to court, I kind of put it all together and understood what the consequences would be if they were not granted to stay here,” said the now 23-year-old Carlin Sadangsal. “It was really scary.”

The Sadangsals’ predicament and others like it won’t be far from the debate taken up in the U.S. Supreme Court Monday, when oral arguments are heard in U.S. v. Texas, a case examining the constitutionality of President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) and expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), both announced in November 2014.

Image: Immigrants and community leaders rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington
Immigrants and community leaders rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court to mark the one-year anniversary of President Barack Obama's executive orders on immigration in Washington, in this file photo taken November 20, 2015. The U.S. Supreme Court hears a case that probes the boundaries of presidential powers on Monday, facing the question of whether President Barack Obama exceeded his authority with unilateral action to spare millions of people in the country illegally from deportation. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/FilesKEVIN LAMARQUE / Reuters

The initiatives, halted last February by a federal court in Texas, would impact five million undocumented immigrants, many of them parents of children who are legally in the U.S. Those given DAPA status, renewable every three years, would no longer face deportation and would be allowed to temporarily remain in the U.S. to legally work and access public benefits. The existing DACA program is not affected by the judge’s injunction.

Critics of DAPA, including the 26 states suing the federal government, argue that the president exceeded his authority by carrying out immigration reform by executive order, a claim the Obama administration denies. Some 475,000 undocumented Asian Americans would be eligible to apply for either DAPA or the expanded DACA, according to the Pew Research Center.

"It's sometimes lost in the debate that 1.5 million undocumented people — 14 percent of the undocumented population in the U.S. — are from Asian countries," Chris Kang, national director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, told NBC News. "More than a quarter of them would benefit from the expanded DACA and DAPA programs, so our community has a huge stake in the outcome of today's case. We urge the Supreme Court to uphold these programs and allow them to proceed without further delay."

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For years, the Sadangsals faced the prospect of having their family split up if Rebeck and Grace Sadangsal were deported. At first, the couple considered applying for citizenship through Grace Sadangsal’s mother, a U.S. citizen, but Rebeck Sadangsal said he was worried the process would take too long. Petitioning through their kids was also not an option because they were too young.

A pathway called “cancellation of removal,” which requires 10 years of continuous U.S. residence and proof that deportation would cause a family hardship, was their best hope, Rebeck Sadangsal said.

An immigration judge agreed in 2007 to change the couple’s status to lawful permanent residents, Rebeck Sadangsal said. It was a decision that cleared a path for them to file papers in 2014 to become U.S. citizens.

“It was a very stressful situation, but thank god we’re one step closer to the finish line,” Rebeck Sadangsal, 46, told NBC News.

The Sadangsals are one example of a growing number of immigrants recently applying for citizenship. Over the last three years, during each period from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, the number of naturalization applications rose from 157,786 in 2013 to 187,635 in 2015, an increase of around 19 percent, according to figures from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Nasim Khansari, the citizenship project director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Los Angeles (Advancing Justice — LA), told NBC News in an email that her organization this year has also seen an uptick in citizenship applications it has processed.

Each quarter, Advancing Justice — LA usually helps between 150 and 200 clients, but between January and March that number doubled to around 400, Khansari said. With a little less than seven months before a new president is elected, many applying for citizenship have been motivated by this year’s presidential race, Khansari said.

The same is true of Rebeck Sadangsal. The first time he voted was in the Philippines in a mayoral election for his town of Nampicuan, just north of Manila.

“I felt great,” he said. “I felt involved. My vote mattered.”

“It took a long, long time, and we’re finally here and a step closer to my parents being citizens. It’s a long journey and totally worth it in the end.”

Even though his candidate lost, the election process left an indelible impression on him.

“The mayor who won the election, he was great,” Rebeck Sadangsal said. “He was a great guy, and he had done a lot of good things in my hometown.”

A lack of opportunities in the Philippines and the hope of a better life brought Rebeck and Grace Sadangsal to the U.S., where his mother-in-law and some aunts and uncles already lived. Back in the Philippines, Rebeck Sadangsal had studied to be a dental lab technician, but without much demand for that career, he was forced into a number of odd jobs, including janitor and supermarket bagger.

When the Sadangsals arrived in Los Angeles 24 years ago, Rebeck Sadangsal found himself in a similar situation, working in a nursing home for five months, after studying to be a nursing assistant, then as a caregiver, and then a security officer. Today, he’s an account executive with the Asian Journal, a Filipino-American newspaper, and Carlin Sadangsal works as a spa concierge.

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Rebeck Sadangsal said he hopes to become a citizen before the November election so he can vote for president. The couple recently provided their biometrics, a procedure to confirm an applicant’s identity and run background checks, and they expect a call for an interview in a few months.

In the meantime, Rebeck Sadangsal is following the presidential race with keen interest, though he’s still undecided about who should get his vote. The economy and immigration, he said, are among the most important issues in this year’s race.

“A lot of Asians right now, a lot of immigrants are waiting for immigration reform,” Rebeck Sadangsal said.

Carlin Sadangsal said she remembers the energy her dad put into making sure their immigration application was just right — pulling all-nighters and rising early in the morning, collecting documents to show their daughter was an honors student, gathering evidence to prove that they were good people, that they gave back to their community, that they tried to live the American way.

“It took a long, long time, and we’re finally here and a step closer to my parents being citizens,” Carlin Sadangsal said. “It’s a long journey and totally worth it in the end.”

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Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that 638,000 undocumented Asian Americans would be eligible DAPA and extended DACA. According to the Pew Research Center, approximately 475,000 undocumented Asian Americans would be eligible.